In 17th-century Italy, it was not uncommon for well-to-do families to own slaves, most of whom came from North Africa. Likewise, North Africa was home to a robust trade in Christian slaves. Tamar Herzig tells the story of the horrific abuse of a group of Jewish slaves in Livorno, which was at the time home to one of Europe’s freest and most prosperous Jewish communities:
Late in the summer of 1610, a group of enslaved female Jews from the northern Moroccan city of Tétouan were raped by Muslim slaves and Catholic forced laborers in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, early modern Italy’s leading slaving center. The multiple-perpetrator rape took place in Livorno’s slave prison and was orchestrated by Dr. Bernardetto Buonromei, . . . a high-ranking official of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Buonromei, Herzig explains, deliberately exposed the women to male prisoners to encourage their rape, almost certainly as a way to extort money from the local Jewish community:
The Knights of St. Stephen, [who had captured the vessel bearing these Jewish women and enslaved them and their fellow passengers] could enslave any non-Catholic during their excursions. Once in Livorno, enslaved Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Protestants, and Jews were not allotted fixed places to worship at the Bagno, [the place where slaves were kept], whereas Muslim slaves were provided with mosques. This difference reflected the Medici’s awareness that abusing the religious rights of Muslims was bound to become known to Maghrebi authorities, resulting in retaliations against Catholic captives. Whereas diplomatic considerations involved in dealing with the home countries of Muslim slaves provided them with some protection against inhumane treatment, such deterrents did not affect the fate of Jewish slaves. . . . [I]n the 17th century, there was no sovereign Jewish power that enslaved Jews could count on for exerting political pressure on their oppressors—nor could Jewish slaves hope to gain their liberty through an exchange with Christian captives.
By 1606, the plight of enslaved Jews had moved the leaders of Livorno’s Jewish nation to establish the Ḥevrat Pidyon Sh’vuyim, a fund for assisting captives for whom no ransom was forthcoming. Between 1607 and 1611, more than 70 additional Jewish slaves were brought to Livorno from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Their growing numbers led the massari, [the leaders of the Jewish community], to approve a self-imposed tax on goods traded by Jewish merchants in Livorno, to be used for redeeming enslaved Jews. Ferdinando de’ Medici approved the tax; . . . the presence of a thriving community, whose leaders could be pressured into providing ransom for enslaved Jews, influenced these slaves’ treatment. Thus, according to Jewish rabbis, Bagno officials were especially cruel to enslaved Jews on the Sabbath, forcing them to carry out harsh construction work on their holy day, in violation of Jewish law, so that Livorno’s Jews would hear their cries and raise the sum for their release.
Herzig goes on to demonstrate that the rape was simply another form of such deliberate cruelty. (The link below requires a subscription, but a longer summary can be found here.)